Editor's intro: At FFToolbox.com, we offer many tools which endow our users with interesting and unique points of analysis. In this multiple part series, we want to take a closer look at why these tools are useful and what kind of information each tool offered over the years. Through this exercise, we will re-examine the past to find hidden truths today. To check out the OVERUSED RUNNING BACKS tool over at FFToolbox, click here.
Every fantasy owner looks for a RB that receives a high volume of touches. When is enough, enough? When do the touches become more than the human body can handle? There is a direct correlation between a running back's touches and an often-drastic decline in their performance.
Research has found that RBs hit the final plateau during the season in which they reach 2,250 touches. This means they usually peak in their early years, hit their stride and plateau. Their stats stay strong and relatively solid through age 27 or 28. There is then a decline after backs hit the 2,500 touch mark. Of course, this is not a universal truth, simply a trend fantasy owners should use within the context of the game.
We at FFToolbox have also discovered that if a back reaches 400 touches in a single season, it also results in a rapid drop in production. Age is also involved of course; nonetheless, 400 touches seems to affect RBs of any age to some extent. A RB in his early 20s can bounce back from 400 touches, but begin to show the signs of wear-and-tear much earlier than most. Players in their mid-20s see a dramatic drop-off almost immediately. If a RB exceeds 400 touches in their late 20s or later, that's pretty much a wrap for them. There is also a significant decline after the age of 30, which is not always touch-related. Below is a list of examples displaying such occurrences.
400 Touch Seasons
In 2009, former Titans RB Chris Johnson earned his nickname CJ2K. The 24-year-old back was given 408 touches (358 carries and 50 receptions) and accumulated 2,509 total yards on 5.6 yards per carry (YPC) and 10.1 yards per reception (YPR). He has been frustrating fantasy owners ever since. While the numbers are still there to a degree, he never really got back to that same level. Expecting him to hit 2,000 yards again was a stretch. No back has ever rushed for 2,000 yards twice in their career, not yet anyway. What happened is his efficiency plummeted. In 2010, at the age of 25, his YPC dropped more than a full yard from5.6 to 4.3 and then down to 4.0 the following season. There was a slight spike in efficiency in 2012, when he carried for 4.5 YPC in 2012. Last season Johnson was still a relatively young 28 and couldn't manage to break the 4.0 YPC mark for the first time in his career (3.9). This also doesn't take into account his receiving totals. Over six seasons, Johnson also caught 272 passes for 2,003 yards, or roughly 45 catches and 333 yards per season.
Former Chiefs RB Larry Johnson touched the ball a preposterous 457 times in 2006. He finished the season one yard shy of 2,200 yards from scrimmage. He averaged a respectable 4.3 YPC. In 2007 he only managed 3.5 YPC, and more importantly, for the remaining six years of his career he could only make it on the field for an average of 6.1 games a season. He was overused to such an extent, his prime only lasted two seasons.
In 2002, former Miami Dolphins RB Ricky Williams received a grueling 442 touches. The 25-year-old back broke the 2,200 yards from scrimmage mark with an impressive 4.8 YPC. The following season, the former Heisman trophy winner could only muster up 3.5 YPC and never regained his 2002 form. He is a rare case because his YPC did jump back up to over 4.0 from 2008-2011. He did however get a massive amount of rest. From 2004 to 2007, Williams played only 13 games after deciding to retire from the NFL briefly. In his return from 2008 to 2011, he mostly played in split backfields and occasionally starting games in 2009.
In 2000, another former Titans RB Eddie George rushed for over 1,500 yards at 3.7 YPC on 403 carries. He also added 50 receptions for 453 yards. This performance earned him the Madden cover the following year. While we may be able to chalk this one up to the Madden curse, the following season he only managed 3.0 YPC and could not break the 3.5 YPC mark again in his career. George's production was always dependent on a high volume of touches. He was pounded between the tackles and lacked big-play speed and elusiveness. Excluding a 76-yard run in his rookie season, he never again had a run over 40 yards in his career. He was a downhill runner who initiated contact. It's no surprise he declined so rapidly.
LaDainian Tomlinson, the former San Diego Chargers running back who was fantasy gold for so many years, averaged about 395 touches per year from 2001 to 2008. In 2002, he had 458 touches and following that up in 2003 with 413 more touches. The former TCU star was an exception to the rule. We may never see that kind of career ever again. He is the exception to the rule.
From left to right: Steven Jackson, Frank Gore & Maurice Jones-Drew
2,500 Touch Drop-Offs
Over the past 10 years, in the season in which a RB receives his 2,250th career touch, he averages 4.53 YPC. This is the aforementioned final plateau peak of a back's career. After this season though, there is a dramatic drop-off. The season he touches the ball for the 2,500 time, his efficiency declines to just under 4.29 YPC. Once a RB hits the 2,750 touch mark, they almost never manage to break 4.0 YPC again. With the exception of when they reach the 3,500 touch mark, it actually spikes up to 4.12 YPC. This is an aberration though since so few backs make it this far. When they do, it is because they are exceptional, generational one-offs. Guys who are the best of the best. The only candidates are Hall-of-Famers Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin and soon-to-be Hall of Famer L. Tomlinson. So aside from the rare exception, if a RB is soon to reach 2,500 touches, it's time to seriously consider passing on him in your fantasy draft. Going by this standard, due to their number of touches and age (over 30), it's time to let go of Steven Jackson (2,992) and Frank Gore (2,519). We've already seen Jackson fall apart. On the other hand such backs as Adrian Peterson (2,241), Marshawn Lynch (1,955), Maurice Jones-Drew (2,139), C. Johnson (2,014) and Matt Forte (1,892) are at their plateau based on their career touches and are all under 30-years-old. They will begin decline soon, some more gradually than others if they are lucky. Some backs don't even need to reach these milestones and break down far more quickly. Arian Foster is already hearing calls for his demise after only playing in eight games in 2013. In his previous three seasons, he totaled 1,115 touches or about 372 touches per season. Given his tough, between the tackle running style, would it really be a surprise if he continued on a decline?
If you feel strongly enough about a player that by these standards, you should still consider him. These guidelines can only take so many things into account. Some backs are more contact-prone, absorbing more punishment than others. For example, Johnson has more career touches than Lynch, but there's no arguing a back like Lynch has taken more hits. No rule is written in stone, so players like Peterson are re-writing the rule book due to their unprecedented athleticism. Also, players like MJD who have already shown decline aren't guaranteed to have the best season of their career. As a matter of fact, it would be shocking if he did. What we have found is a solid outline based on how the majority of running backs' bodies respond to the beating they take. We have more information today than we ever have before. Gather and use as much information as possible if you want to gain an upper-hand on your opponents. Knowledge is power, and in fantasy football, could be your key to success.